The Celtics' playoff berth probably cost them long-term
The Celtics hold draft picks at nos. 16, 28 (from Clippers), 33 (from Sixers) and 45 in 2015.
Naturally, most Celtics fans were psyched when Boston locked a playoff seed in April. The post-season berth marked unthinkable success for a group that virtually everyone (at least in summer) expected to be a lottery team. On paper, a team involved in a whopping seven trades (one of which included captain Rajon Rondo) simply isn't playoff material.
Despite a revolving-door roster, second-year coach Brad Stevens somehow pushed all the right buttons and inspired over-achievement from his band of misfit role-players. The roller-coaster "rebuilding season" earned the Celtics young talent and assets, and the seven seed for a date with the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Throughout the regular season however, the question remained--to tank, or not to tank? It seems the non-tank camp is especially happy with this season's outcome, often citing the establishment of a "winning culture." While I think the Celtics would have been better off missing the playoffs, I'll first concede it seems there must be something to the allure of a winning culture. Nobody grows up (or reaches the NBA) and daydreams about playing for the Charlotte Bobcats. Instead, players and fans fantasize playing for franchises like the Los Angeles Lakers and Boston Celtics. These are teams with established history, identity, and legacy--without a doubt, winning cultures.
But these true winning cultures are rarely established in a single season. They are a product of several years, and usually decades. An alluring winning culture can be established in a short period of time, but these events are preceded by the arrival of a superstar (an not vice-versa). It's the reason guys take pay cuts to play with and follow LeBron. Historically, the Cleveland Cavaliers have little to show in the way of winning culture. Cleveland was not a free agent destination when LeBron was in Miami, but it's hard to argue that there is not a winning culture currently in place with the Irving/James/Love group.
With this in mind, "winning culture" obviously means something. These cultures have a greater ability to draw free agents and encourage solid basketball, but the term remains ambiguous. Does making the playoffs and getting swept in four games significantly promote more of a winning culture than missing playoffs? Better yet, is getting spanked in four games to in an effort to establish a winning culture a better investment than tanking for a better pick? I don't think so.
The glaring hole in citing "winning culture" (either back in April or now, in hindsight) as a reason to prefer playoffs over a chance at a better pick is that the notion can't be quantified. While draft position can be calculated and probabilities can be measured, "winning culture" is ambiguous. Is a four-game exit (of which the Celtics lost on an average of near double-digits) really going to garner so much more allure to your "winning culture" than the better pick earned by missing the playoffs? With regards to the Celtics situation, I find the quantifiably greater pick probability (even if small) to be more likely significant than the likelihood of a first-round whooping drawing FA interest by way of "winning culture."
Admittedly, contrarians may say that these differences in draft position are very minor or even negligible, thus they prefer wins. This is simply untrue; the difference in value from one pick to the next is considerable. Chad Ford wrote about this exact topic, noting that the Celtics playoff run cost them long-term:
"Celtics fans are rightfully stoked that this year's squad made the playoffs. But it came at huge price. There are 10 to 12 real difference-makers in this draft and the Celtics fell to 16. If it cost them a chance at a rim protector like (Willie) Cauley-Stein or (Myles) Turner, or an upgrade at small forward like (Justise) Winslow or (Mario) Hezonja, this year's run hurt the franchise long term."
One NBA scout even told MassLive.com that the talent drop-off starts as early as pick number eight or nine. Without going into too many hypotheticals, it seems fair to say the Celtics could have picked around the nine spot. They jockeyed with the Heat, Pacers, Jazz and Suns in the standings for the final leg of the season, which they closed with 9 wins in 11 games.
While a team could also feasibly end up with a better player at 16 than 9 (see "busts" and "steals" of various drafts to confirm this notion), obviously the higher the pick, the greater the value. For perspective, take a look at players taken in recent drafts around the no. 9 and no. 16 selections:
No. 9 DeMar DeRozan
No. 16 James Johnson
No. 9 Gordon Hayward
No. 10 Paul George
No. 16 Luke Babbitt
No. 9 Kemba Walker
No. 16 Nikola Vucevic
No. 9 Andre Drummond
No. 16 Royce White
No. 9 Trey Burke
No. 16 Lucas Nogueira
The Sixers lucked out with Nikola Vucevic (although nobody knew it and he was even more of a "throw-in" prospect in the Dwight Howard trade), but the differences in impact from no. 9 and no. 16 are still plain to see.
To the fans who simply can't root for losses because they are too deeply passionate about the team--that's awesome. Truly undying support is one thing that sets the Celtics franchise apart from many others. However, that passion must be supplemented with practicality for a more objective perception. As in many facets of life (and especially in the role of GM or coach), objectivity is paramount to success. While it is great to see a group like the 2014-15 Celts make the playoffs, it was probably a setback for long-term success.
Take a step back and consider these hypothetical options:
Authentic passion for a team is fun, but practicality is integral to long-term decision-making. I rooted for losses the entire season--not actively, but as an over-arching philosophy. That is, I did not wish for Isaiah Thomas to brick his next 15 shots during a game or frown when Marcus Smart hit the deck for another loose ball. But removed from the games, I knew losing was ultimately a better investment for the Celtics to make as a franchise.
If you absolutely had to bet your life savings on one NBA team to go the distance, you wouldn't have put it on the Celtics (and if you would, you are simply illogical). The point is that sometimes you must be practical even if it goes against your emotions. Losing in the short-term was the better investment for the Celtics long-term.
The notion of tanking is an especially hard one to stomach for passionate fans, and rightly so. It's an unfortunately real practice that nobody enjoys, but there are undeniably benefits. Nobody likes the "hack-a" strategy, but good coaches wouldn't be employing it if it wasn't advantageous.
Though they haven't had the best luck in the past, I'm disappointed that the Celtics will not be part of the lottery drawing tonight at 8:30 ET. A more tank-friendly route would have provided Danny Ainge and the Celtics an accelerated rebuild and a more tangible, exciting future. Still, Ainge has demonstrated savvy management with his assets, and there's reason to be optimistic he will continue to do so.
Photo courtesy of Jennifer Pottheiser/NBAE via Getty Images